Lee Dixon: Gallas in for a tough afternoon but his Arsenal return gives derby an added edge

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When I joined Arsenal in 1988, from day one it was made clear to me that the derby games with Tottenham were the most important of the season. I joined in the middle of the season, and the next game with Spurs was a few weeks off, but people were talking about it in training all the time.

For the north London lads like David Rocastle, Michael Thomas, Paul Davis and Tony Adams, beating Tottenham was almost the biggest priority of the season. When I played in my first derby I remember David Rocastle and Michael Thomas were literally getting me up against a radiator, threatening me – and that was my own players.

I had played in local derbies before, like for Chester against Wrexham, which may not sound like much of an encounter but was pretty tasty, but it was nothing at all like being involved in the dressing room before Arsenal played Tottenham.

Sadly, those days have gone. Over the past 20 years the passion and intensity of this fixture has been diluted. The fact that Tottenham have not won at Arsenal since 1993 has not helped. As I remember, it was the last game of the League season and Arsenal put out a weakened side because we were playing Sheffield Wednesday in the FA Cup final a few days later.

The combination of Arsenal's dominance and Tottenham's wilderness years has made it a less volatile atmosphere. Having said that, however, I think it is still a massive game, and it is becoming so again with Tottenham's resurgence in the past two seasons under Harry Redknapp.

The return of William Gallas to the Emirates will certainly add some edge, and it will be interesting to see how he handles it. I was a little surprised when Arsène Wenger let him leave in the summer, although he does have a good record of knowing when a player is on the wane. Gallas was a better player for Arsenal once he was stripped of the captaincy. He relaxed and started to perform like the centre-half that we know he can still be.

But it will be hard for him to be back so soon at his old club. I remember playing with Martin Keown when he went back to Everton and he was worried about what sort of reception he would receive from the fans. There were a few disparaging chants, and Martin was disappointed because I think he thought he would get a standing ovation. It bothered him for about 10 minutes and then things settled down. And we won, which helped. Gallas just has to approach it as a normal game and not worry about the off-field stuff.

Tottenham fans will now be thinking they want three points not just for pride, and to damage Arsenal's title challenge, but also to close the gap on their neighbours. I think Arsenal are still a stronger team but there is certainly less to choose between the sides than there has been for years.

Tottenham have former Spurs players like Les Ferdinand, Clive Allen and Tim Sherwood on the coaching staff, and they can help give the current set of players a sense of what the game means to the supporters.

They also have a wonderful player in Rafael van der Vaart. There are similarities between him and my old Arsenal team-mate Dennis Bergkamp, although Van der Vaart still has some way to go if he is to be as good. Bergkamp is the best player I have ever played with, or against in training. Van der Vaart however is a step up in class and everyone at Tottenham knows they do have an exceptional player on their hands.

Arsenal's key man is, of course, Cesc Fabregas. I am a big fan of Fabregas but I am concerned that he is not 100 per cent fit. He has been talking about his tight hamstring and Arsenal are managing it on a weekly basis. Playing with a tight hamstring, with the busy Christmas period coming up, can only be a concern. He said the other week he is only playing at 80 per cent because he is trying to protect himself.

If Arsenal win they will go top of the table, if only perhaps for a few hours, which will also add to the sense of occasion at the Emirates today. It will not quite be the bearpit of a north London derby from 20 years ago, but it is still one of the great occasions of the season.

Five Asides

1 Rooney faces struggle to earn back respect

A lot of people will say it's about time Wayne Rooney returned from injury but it will be a difficult period for him. After the situation over his contract the fans will be on at him, saying, "Come on, start earning your money." Unfortunately, he will be judged by that. He has some hearts to win over, and the only way to do that is to put the ball in the back of the net. If he doesn't, it will become much harder for him.

2 Hughes will relish chance to prove point

Mark Hughes takes on his former club Manchester City, and his record there holds up more than fairly compared with that of his successor, Roberto Mancini. Deep down, I am sure it would be a special victory for Hughes if Fulham could beat City tomorrow and City have been really up and down.

3 There's only one way to manage club v country

I am a big believer that when you are selected for your country, you are handed over to that country's FA. It always used to be that way but the amount clubs pay in wages now, they start making requests, like Liverpool over Steven Gerrard. But you have to let Fabio Capello manage the team his way.

4 Balotelli abuse

The racial abuse dished out to Mario Balotelli by his own fans during Italy's draw with Romania in midweek shows just how little the Italians have done to combat the problem. The racism was so blatant but the authorities have been doing nothing about it.

5 Start queuing now for City's January clear-out

It seems some big names at Manchester City will be sold in January. Should be a few bargains to be had.

Dixon's verdict on all the weekend action

Arsenal v Tottenham Hotspur

Dixon's verdict: Spurs have failed to win at Arsenal for over 15 years and, despite the possible returns of Aaron Lennon and Jermain Defoe from injury, I can't see that changing today. Gunners to take the points.

Kick-off: Today, 12.45pm (Sky Sports 2; Highlights BBC1, 10.25pm)

Prediction: Home win

Birmingham City v Chelsea

Dixon's verdict: Chelsea's defeat to Sunderland last weekend was a shock and Carlo Ancelotti will want his side to make amends today. Birmingham have not won in five and this could be a perfect pick-me-up for the Blues.

Kick-off: Today, 3pm (Highlights BBC1, 10.25pm)

Prediction: Away win

Blackpool v Wolverhampton Wanderers

Dixon's verdict: Blackpool have not beaten Wolves in a home League match since a 7-2 win in 1962 – how they would welcome a repeat today. Wolves' performances have improved and they'll have enough for a draw.

Kick-off: Today, 3pm (Highlights BBC1, 10.25pm)

Prediction: Draw

Bolton Wanderers v Newcastle United

Dixon's verdict: Both these sides have impressed recently, particularly Bolton who sit in fifth. Newcastle's best results have come away from St James' this season but the Reebok is always a hard place to go. Bolton to win.

Kick-off: Today, 3pm (Highlights BBC1, 10.25pm)

Prediction: Home win

Manchester United v Wigan Athletic

Dixon's verdict: United continue to impress in fits and starts, remaining unbeaten but also having drawn over half their games. Today's opponents will not pose too much trouble, though, particularly with Rooney likely to return.

Kick-off: Today, 3pm (Setanta Ireland; Highlights BBC1, 10.25pm)

Prediction: Home win

West Bromwich Albion v Stoke City

Dixon's verdict: The Baggies' form has suffered recently, with just one win in the last seven League matches, but the visit of a Stoke without an away win in two months gives them the perfect chance to get back on track.

Kick-off: Today, 3pm (Highlights BBC1, 10.25pm)

Prediction: Home win

Liverpool v West Ham United

Dixon's verdict: Liverpool were poor in defeat at Stoke last week and the Steven Gerrard episode with England this week can hardly have helped morale. That said, they should still overcome a struggling Hammers side.

Kick-off: Today, 5.30pm (ESPN; Highlights BBC1, 10.25pm)

Prediction: Home win

Blackburn Rovers v Aston Villa

Dixon's verdict: I was impressed with Aston Villa's youngsters last week, who came close to beating United before two late goals. Ewood Park is always an intimidating ground, and that should help Rovers get a point.

Kick-off: Tomorrow, 1.30pm (Sky Sports 1; Highlights BBC2, 10.30pm)

Prediction: Draw

Fulham v Manchester City

Dixon's verdict: Fulham have struggled for goals, although Moussa Dembélé's ankle injury gives Andy Johnson a chance. City continue to frustrate and I'm not sure they have enough to beat their old gaffer, Sparky.

Kick-off: Tomorrow, 4pm (Sky Sports 1; Highlights BBC2, 10.30pm)

Prediction: Draw

Sunderland v Everton

Dixon's verdict: What a week it must have been around Sunderland after that magnificent win at Chelsea. Steve Bruce has got the Black Cats purring and they can keep their run going against a misfiring Everton.

Kick-off: Monday, 8pm (Sky Sports 1; Highlights Tuesday, 1am, SS1)

Prediction: Home win